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James Blackwell Phelan


I study modernist literature’s complicated involvement in the history of the encyclopedia, i.e. the history of formal solutions to the age-old and always-worsening problem of information overload. Encyclopedias are books composed of shelves of books, books made to approximate libraries. They make immensities of information wieldy and navigable. In the early twentieth century, up to their necks in the flood of information that characterizes modern life, some authors (e.g. T.S. Eliot, Hope Mirrlees, James Joyce, Walter Benjamin) used encyclopedic form in ways it had never been used in literature, transforming the basic architecture of established genres such as the long poem and the novel and giving rise to radically new types of reading. Other authors (Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Samuel Beckett) were disinclined to embrace information overload, or thought that was a bad idea, and devised markedly unencyclopedic or anti-encyclopedic ways of writing modernity. I am interested in all of this and how it speaks to our concerns in an unprecedentedly overloaded Information Age.